The Best/Worst Time for a Florida Refuge

Creating a wildlife preserve in the Everglades has been an ongoing effort. Fish and wildlife managers say the recession makes now an ideal time to get it accomplished.

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Multiple efforts have been advanced in recent years to create and expand an Everglades wildlife refuge, an ambitious and costly goal in such financially uncertain times.

The recession hit Florida harder than most other states. Despite the economic climate, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed creating an Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge in Central Florida.  And although Florida Governor Rick Scott has indicated that now is not the time to spend tax dollars on conservation projects, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says this is actually an ideal moment to achieve such goals.

With private land deals slowed by the recession, the federal wildlife agency proposes to “capitalize on the real estate economy to protect biologically important lands.”  Wildlife officials realize that if the economy turns around, and now-idling developments are financed, that window of opportunity could close.

Charlie Pelizza, Refuge Manager at Pelican Bay in Florida, says, “There are at least sixty Developments of Regional Impact—residential developments primarily—that are in the [Everglades] landscape that are either in initial stages, or have already been approved.  When the economy improves, those could proceed.”

Pelizza says that if those development projects do proceed, the Service would lose the ability to restore water quality for wildlife and for Floridians.  In addition, existing wildlife corridors would be further fragmented, limiting the range and viability of Florida’s most endangered species.

Pelizza also cites nascent alternative energy projects — for biofuels, wind, and solar power — that would likely move ahead when the economy improves, significantly altering the landscape.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The 1.78 million-acre region of the Everglades watershed, now under study as a wildlife refuge.

The area now under study for the Everglades refuge consists of four counties — Polk, Osceola, Highlands, Okeechobee — totaling 1.78 million acres. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hoping to identify 150,000 acres for the refuge and conservation area—100,000 acres to be acquired through conservation easements, and 50,000 acres through direct purchase.

The most recent Everglades restoration project in South Florida was forced to be scaled back from an earlier, more ambitious plan.  In 2008, Governor Charlie Crist proposed purchasing 187,00 acres from the U.S. Sugar Corporation. The South Florida Water Management District agreed to buy this land for $1.3 billion.

But citing the economic downturn, the state was forced to reduce the project dramatically, twice.  The final sale of 26,791 acres, for $197.3 million closed in October of last year.        

This land was sought primarily to improve the water quality in South Florida ecosystems by taking a chunk of the Everglades out of heavy agricultural production. The current proposal for a refuge cites similar goals for improving water quality, but rather than restoring an ecosystem, the Service seeks only to preserve existing habitats that are increasingly rare but currently in healthy ecological condition.

Andrew Moore
Prairie grazing lands near Lake Marian, in the proposed Everglades Wildlife Refuge
Florida’s current governor, Rick Scott, spoke out against the U.S. Sugar-Everglades deal during his campaign for office, in August of 2010. 

As governor Scott has designated no funds for the state’s conservation land acquisition program, Florida Forever, in his recommendation for the 2011-2012 budget. Scott did, however, recommend $17 million for lower Everglades restoration projects. He has told reporters that his current priority is creating jobs.

Earlier this month, state legislators introduced a bill to allow the development of golf courses on wildlife habitat in state parks. One park named specifically was Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Palm Beach County, a federally designated Wild and Scenic River.

Although the bill has since been withdrawn, it indicates the current legislature’s willingness to sacrifice wildlife habitat for projected economic benefits. The bill grew out of talks between Hall of Fame golfer Jack Nicklaus and Governor Scott, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service sees the current economic situation very differently. Because Florida land prices have fallen from the highs of the land speculation and development boom, the Service sees this as an opportune time to purchase lands at more affordable rates. The Service argues that conditions are actually ripe for funding conservation projects.

According to Pelican Bay’s refuge manager Pelizza, royalties collected from offshore oil drilling could provide funding for the proposed Everglades project. A second major source of potential funding comes from the Federal Duck Stamp, required of waterfowl hunters.  The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, signed into law in 1934, generates revenue for wetlands acquisition for what is now the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Andrew Moore
Eagles’ nest at the Adams Ranch in Osceola County, Florida.

The creation of this refuge is being sought, first of all, in order to conserve habitat for 88 threatened and endangered species, including Florida panthers, Florida black bears and Everglades snail kites.  Many endangered species are declining due to continual habitat destruction; the Service is taking into consideration global climate change and rising sea levels as future causes of habitat loss.

But another goal is to protect the water supply for millions of people, including residents of the heavily populated urban areas of South Florida. The study area includes the headwaters of the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, which is the main source of water for the majority of South Floridians.

In addition, according to the Service, the proposal supports the America’s Great Outdoors program, a national priority of the Secretary of the Interior, “by conserving a rural ranching and agricultural community, as well as the rural character of Central Florida.” This would be accomplished by creating conservation easements on privately held lands, allowing ranchers to continue raising cattle.

The rules of conservation easements vary from state to state, and from project to project, but in most cases the private landowner sells development rights to a public entity–in this case the USFWS–but remains sole owner of the property.  A rancher, for example, can continue cattle-grazing operations, but no new developments can occur on the landscape.

Landowners are paid for these development rights at rates determined through property value appraisals. The Wildlife Service would make an offer to willing sellers based on current market values. A landowner would still be able to sell his or her land in the future, but the development rights would remain with the Service.

The family-owned Adams Ranch has partnered with research and wildlife management for decades on their ranch in Osceola County and in St. Lucie County, where the family business is headquartered.     

This past November, Adams Ranch entered into a 40-acre easement at their Osceola ranch, adjacent to the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. The easement area is a native prairie that the ranch is not permitted to disturb either by turning it into improved pasture or by constructing roads.  The ranch is also required to manage the property properly, which includes prescribed burning. Mike Adams, president of Adams Ranch, says his cattle are still free to graze in the area.

But because the current refuge proposal would include a much larger area, Adams says, his company would need to make sure those future easements aren’t as restrictive before making any further agreement.
 
“We work in a dynamic world now, on a world basis,” Adams says.  “What you do today you may not be doing ten years from now.”

The Osceola ranch contains a mix of dense hammocks, cypress domes, palmetto prairie, and open prairie.  In addition to cattle, the ranch is home to bald eagles, gopher tortoises, wild turkey, killdeer, and the migrating purple martin, among other species. Adams Ranch shares a property line with Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, a 62,000-acre preserve of dry prairie.  This proximity makes the ranch a highly prized zone for expanding existing wildlife corridors.

Pelizza says that ranching lands are more favorable than heavy agriculture, such as citrus groves.

Andrew Moore
Mike and LeeAnn Adams — LeeAnn has led conservation initiatives at Adams Ranch.

“Especially when we’re talking about the ranching community, their needs are similar to ours, and very compatible,” Pelizza says.  “Our mission is to provide habitat for wildlife — the ranching community are also interested in providing these opportunities for future generations as well.”

Adams admits that at the height of the real estate and land speculation boom, his ranch received a few offers that were close to the right price.  But he asked the interested developer to stop offering, because the ranch was not for sale.

“A lot of the people in the cattle business really enjoy what they do,” Adams says.  “It’s not so much for a return on their investment,” Adams says; it’s a way of life, and quality of life, that the ranchers like himself care about most. “Florida without wildlife would be kind of a sad place,” he says.

Adams’s son, Zachary, lives near the Osceola ranch.  In total, four full-time cowboys work at the ranch.

 “I know we’ve had a good balance of wildlife and productive agriculture operation,” Adams says.  “We feel it could be very much sustainable into the future, but you need the ability to do different things.”

Andrew Moore is a writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 

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